The Basenji (The ‘Villager Dog’ In Lingala)
My beloved old Basenji died, after a long night, cradled in my arms like a baby, his trusting eyes never leaving mine. They were dark and deep, focused inward on the business of dying. When his breathing changed from long rasping sighs to smaller and smaller puffs, I grew desperately incredulous. It made me wonder if pain, loss and witnessing his death outweighed the joys of having a pet. Was it really worth it?
Although the shock of losing my dog left me baffled and dispirited and even though his absence was painful, I knew I had to return to normal pet-owning life soon enough. My two other dogs were waiting for their daily walks around the Japanese village and countryside where I live on the island of Shikoku.
The Shiba Inu (The Brushwood Dog)
We chose a fine spot for our dog’s burial in the back yard, near a tall cherry tree already blossoming a soft pink and where rays of sunlight filter through the bamboo forest. An overturned plastic crate once filled to the brim with oranges, given to us by one of the neighborhood farmers, served as a makeshift altar over his grave. The Shiba dogs, our Basenji’s longtime companions and rivals, watched us work from a distance. Mid-morning, an Argentinian friend brought a bouquet of wild jaunty yellow rapeseed flowers and bunches of aromatic rosemary from her garden. We rolled his red leash around the plastic bottle filled with field flowers and herbs and set his water bowl down in front of his little rustic shrine. A Japanese friend came over later to say goodbye to my dog and to console me as I had done for her many years ago when she lost her pet. Language was not a big part of this gesture. We just loved each other’s dogs. American, Kiwi, Australian and Canadian friends and colleagues who are part of the Matsuyama foreign community eventually showed up to reminisce about an intimidating Dobermann-like but otherwise entertaining dog who stole hamburgers off the BBQ grill.
Later, and it took time to look forward to it, I resumed daily walks with my remaining two happy-go-lucky Shibas at my side. We followed the usual route around the tiny neighborhood, onto the dirt trail hugging the slate-grey irrigation pond where ducks glide while Shibas watch wistfully, and finally further into the denuded early spring fields. Here and there, thickets of buttery rapeseed withstand the vigorous wind blowing in from the Seto Inland Sea, a mere 500 meters away. After the 2011 tsunami disaster in Fukushima on the Pacific coast, a metal post was put up in front of our village evacuation site indicating we were 16.8 meters above sea level.
I moved to this rural area of Japan just outside the mid-size city of Matsuyama more than 15 years ago. The neighborhood, nestled in a verdant valley, shelters a dozen traditional dark wood farmhouses topped with elaborate grey kawara tiles. When I first arrived in Japan, I was surprised to see so many traditional houses from the window of the speeding slick bullet train. At one end of the neighborhood, the mountains covered with orange trees, at the other end, a winding narrow road leading to the Inland Sea and the outside world. We bought the property off one of the village elders and built our house over a few months under their attentive eyes. After moving in, we did the rounds of our closest neighbors to introduce ourselves. We gave them a small gift of hand towels, as my husband bowed and said, “yoroshiku onegaishimasu,” a Japanese phrase to convey respect and appreciation and to thank in advance any demands we would make on them. And there would be many! Living in close proximity, we were going to be connected.
The neighbors were friendly enough. They greeted us and brought us crates of oranges from their groves and daikon from their vegetable patches. They smiled, not knowing if I could communicate with them. The neighborhood leader came over to explain the recycling system and cleaning chores we would be asked to participate in: sweep and weed the temple grounds, clear the narrow paths up and down the hills to reach the orange groves, cut the grass around the irrigation pond, cook for the autumn festival participants. We were assigned to a cleaning han and we found ourselves in different groups. Just thinking about cleaning duty as a newcomer, and a ‘foreigner’ to boot, alongside a tight-knitted group of Japanese elders who had gone to elementary school together and who spoke a local dialect gave me an anxiety attack. I worried that they thought of me as a necessary evil. I just did not know how I could relate to them. In our neighborhood, even my husband is considered a ‘stranger,’ a city boy not born in this land but 25 minutes away.
Dogs changed everything though.
After getting the Basenji we also fell for a Shiba Inu and welcomed a stray one too. The dogs needed walks and they pulled me deeper into the neighborhood. Farmers in the rice fields and gardens looked up and said “Hey what is that dog?” Grannies vigorously sweeping their stone entrance shouted how cute he was and told me in dialect about the dogs they used to own, mostly Shiba or Shikoku Inu, familiar fixtures in the Japanese countryside. I nodded a lot. Nobody ever called me by my first name but they called out to Loulou. He became a topic: A Basenji? From Africa! He bit a local politician who extended a hand over the fence, to my husband’s delight. He held tightly on the white glove of a petrified Black Cat deliveryman and hung from the seat pant of the man who checks the gas meter. Sumimasen, Gomen nasai, these apologies quickly became part of my daily vocabulary. One day I caught the mailman feeding him treats through the slots in the fence. He told me he had a Shiba Inu. I negotiated this conversation as best I could and realized that people would paraphrase and gesture until they felt I understood and reacted accordingly. They wanted to get their dog story across.
I also got to know a farmer called Arita San pretty well because he started sharing leftover bread destined for his ducks with my dogs. A ritual was born. We had to pay Arita San a visit before going for a walk or we would never get anywhere. We made small talk in some kind of code where he read my face to see if I understood and then adjusted his language to my level. I repeated the words I didn’t understand and he then paraphrased with simpler words. From him, as he was feeding my dogs little pieces of stale bread, I learned how to make a vegetable garden, how to cook broad beans and who was who in the hood. I shouldn’t buy rice from that grumpy neighbor. He thought the colorful local festivals based on Shinto rites that I appreciated so much made Japanese look, to the rest of the world, like pagans gone wild. He liked Stephen Hawking’s ideas instead. He was the person to go to in case of trouble. One time, he killed a viper in our bath. Throughout the years we’ve been neighbors, he dug out the fence to get my dog unstuck, spread his homemade natural concoction of centipede repellent around the house before every rainy season, resolved disputes between neighbors, predicted typhoons, helped my husband clear the bamboo forest. He told me stories patiently but most of all, he enjoyed my dogs’ company, as I saw it. Our daily exchanges made me feel like I was becoming a ‘regular’ in the neighborhood.
The Akita Inu (From Akita Prefecture In Northern Japan)
On my daily walks a little further in the fields I met many dog walkers. No one was too interested in knowing about my country of origin. No one complimented me on being able to string five words of Japanese together. We talked about our dogs, in simple, sometimes single words: cute, big, noisy, old, bad dog. I could finally venture to use those intimidating but socially necessary backchannel cues indicating I was paying attention, that I understood and agreed. How many times had students shouted ‘really??’ at me at the top of their voices in a high rising intonation as if we were actors in a comedy?
Nakano San and her husband used to walk with six or seven dogs from a shelter run by an NPO despite Mr. Nakano having to hold so many leashes with deformed hands. One little dog walked with a rear wheelchair. Once, we made a pact to keep a look out for a roaming stray dog who had almost snapped his tail in half in a wild boar trap. When on one of my walks I spotted the huge Akita following me from a distance, I phoned Nakano San on my cellphone and passed on the message I had been rehearsing in Japanese for weeks: ‘He’s here! I’m on the middle path near the biggest greenhouse!’ My confidence and sense of belonging took a boost right here and now. Together we lured the big Akita into Nakano San’s car and took him to the local veterinary clinic who operated free-of-charge. Nakano San found the owner, an elderly hillbilly recluse with a long grey beard who lived alone. She bought a leash and I bought a harness. Now we see Gen chan on the street corner happily licking his daily ice cream cone, his owner crouched on the sidewalk beside him. We always greet each other’s dogs and ask how they are doing, a short, basic and repetitive interaction I can nail in Japanese. Recently, he stopped my husband to pet our Shibas. They had a little dog chat for the first time in 15 years of crossing paths.
The Kishu Inu (From The Kishu Region Of Japan Comprising Mie And Wakayama Prefectures)
One early summer evening our dogs were running along the fence quite agitated. On the other side stood Yuri, the Kishu dog. Her name means lily and she is completely white. Willful and headstrong, she refused to surrender her newfound freedom and follow her owner home. Soga San, 89 years old, is a neighbor who farms a little field every day and stops for tea at his friends’ houses in the village with Yuri in tow. We joined the neighbors, out in force in their pyjamas, shouting, cajoling, whistling, trying to corral her and attract her with dog treats. She snapped at us when we attempted to grab her collar. On many occasions her owner had to go to hospital for stitches on his hands. But Yuri was his only family and a star in the neighborhood. We had to catch her for Soga San’s sake and what a celebration it was when we finally did. I joined in, reprimanding her affectionately with the baby talk I heard at my son’s daycare center when the Japanese mothers picked up their children. Soga San once asked me how to say ‘Yuri is my precious baby’ in English. Every winter, he drives 12 hours with her to the snowy peaks of Nagano for a ski holiday where he meets many Australians in the ski village, strangers who stop to fawn over his big snowy dog. Soga San ends up sharing many a hot pot dinner with his new friends from far away Down Under. Language barriers and age don’t seem to come up when Yuri is there among them eating good meat.
The Matsuyama Hojo Veterinary Clinic Mhvc, Ehime Prefecture, Japan
Japanese people are not inclined to make small talk, banter or jokes in their formal service culture. Once, while ordering a minuscule cake for my husband’s 60th birthday, in response to how many candles would you like, I said 60. Without missing a beat the employee retorted, kashikomarimashita, a formal way of saying I’ll get on it.
Sometimes Japan feels lonely and cold when not wanting to bother or involve others (the concept of enryo). Keisuke Tsunekawa explains this most quintessential cultural trait in his article “Behind the Stereotype: Japanese People are so Nice and Polite!” (Livejapan.com, August 22, 2019)through the example of dog walking, no less. Another time I left a packed movie theater ten minutes before the start of the film because I felt so forlorn sitting there alone, visibly different, among a crowd of homogeneous-looking people.
There is one place in my small countryside world in Japan where people talk informally and without reserve: the veterinary hospital. You meet the regulars and you meet new people. Animated conversations about pets overlap, compliments abound, ailments, sleeping arrangements, food, breeds, quirks provoke hilarity and establish common ground. I’m the only ‘foreigner’, a visibly different one at that, but no one has ever asked me where I was from, my nationality being an irrelevant piece of information in the world of pet-owners. I forget it myself. The Other ceases to exist. ‘Take care!’, ‘See you next time!’, ‘Make sure she eats properly!’ we urge each other, with me confidently chiming in in Japanese. I fit in like a duck to water in this veterinary clinic, a sort of language and culture laboratory.
That Monday morning when I sat nervously in the waiting room with my Basenji wrapped in a blanket, a complete stranger, owner of a dachshund, comforted me, her hand on mine. Would this physical comforting happen between two Japanese? Probably not, according to Tsunekawa. ‘Don’t cry. Show him a happy and loving face. That’s what he needs right now’, she articulated slowly and softly, wanting me to understand her message. I would later follow her advice.
The elderly man sitting with his back straight as an arrow, a beagle on his knees, gave me a heartfelt but curt and solemn stiff-upper-lip gambatte. Not the mindless keep your chin up as an empty exhortation to show grit, but the gambatte with teary eyes that knows your heart is about to shatter. The “be brave” gambatte.
I still don’t know if it was a privilege or an unnecessary ordeal to catch my dog’s last breath and watch life leaving his eyes, but what I know is that dogs, undercover intercultural agents that they are, broke down borders for me in a foreign language, in a foreign land. It really was worth it.